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Azerbaijan: Exiles’ Participation In Election Campaign Uncertain Despite Registration

The international community has long pressed the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to improve its democratic credentials and ensure that legislative polls due later this year are free and fair. Now, in a move seen as a concession to foreign pressure, election officials have authorized two prominent exiled opposition leaders to seek parliamentary seats. But whether the two men will be able to return to Azerbaijan to participate in the election campaign remains uncertain.

Prague, 7 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 5 September, an election commission in Baku registered former President Ayaz Mutallibov as a candidate in the 6 November polls. Mutallibov now co-chairs the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. He has been living in exile in Russia since 1992. Last month, another election commission in the Azerbaijani capital registered former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev as a candidate.

Quliyev chairs the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and has been living in self-exile in the United States since 1996. Both men are wanted in Azerbaijan on charges they deny. The Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined in 2001, has been pressing the successive government of late President Heidar Aliyev and his son Ilham to allow both political exiles to return home and participate in the country’s political life.

Their recent registration is seen as a concession to European pressure on the part of Azerbaijani authorities. Speaking to our correspondent from Russia, Mutallibov welcomed the decision that in theory allows him to campaign in Baku’s Yasamal district.

“My reaction is very positive. I met the news with great satisfaction. In this regard I would like to say that I agree with those analysts and observers who say the first stage of the electoral process is relatively transparent. [This being said,] the vote itself must be perfectly transparent and I do hope it will be,” Mutallibov said.

Allowed To Return?

But whether the first president of post-Soviet Azerbaijan will be allowed to return home safely remains under question. Just hours after Mutallibov spoke to RFE/RL, the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Baku ordered his immunity to be lifted. Mutallibov subsequently declined to comment on the decision, which he said was “predictable.”

The Prosecutor-General’s Office last month took a similar step with regard to Quliyev, less than 24 hours after an election commission in Baku’s Xatai district had registered the former parliament speaker as a candidate. Under Azerbaijani laws, candidates seeking parliamentary seats are granted immunity from penal prosecution that can be lifted only if they commit a crime during the election campaign.

Quliyev's Troubles

Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor-General Zakir Qaralov last month said nothing prevented Mutallibov and Quliyev from registering as candidates in the upcoming polls. But he made it clear both men would be arrested upon their arrival in Baku. Quliyev tells RFE/RL he will challenge the prosecutor-general’s decision to lift his immunity before an Azerbaijani tribunal and, if necessary, before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“I deeply regret that the Prosecutor-General’s Office made this hasty decision. Were they afraid I would show up in Baku within the next four or five hours [that followed my registration], or what? This decision violates Azerbaijan’s constitution and other laws. By doing this they cast an enormous doubt on the democratic character of the upcoming polls,” Quliyev said.

Quliyev left Azerbaijan in the midst of growing disagreements with Heidar Aliyev. He is wanted in Azerbaijan for allegedly embezzling $100 million between 1990 and 1995, first as a state oil executive, then as parliament speaker.

Mutallibov's Troubles

The charges facing Mutallibov are multiple. He is reportedly wanted for his alleged responsibility in the bloody army crackdown in Baku on 20 January 1990. Then-Prime Minister Mutallibov took over as first secretary of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party only after the Soviet military intervention, which claimed nearly 170 lives. Other reports say the former Azerbaijani president is wanted for his failure to prevent the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian forces and for a 1996 failed assassination attempt against Heidar Aliyev.

Faced with increasing criticism over Karabakh, Mutallibov was forced to resign in March 1992. He fled the country a few weeks later after a failed attempt to retake power. Mutallibov says he is not familiar with the legal proceedings initiated against him.

“I’ve never seen them. During all [13] years [I’ve spent in exile], I haven’t seen anything. Authorities [in Baku] could have sent any document to the country I’m forced to live in, but that never happened. They can’t even formulate the charges. At some point they mentioned the events of 20 January 1990. But everyone knows they were directly connected to a decision made by [then-Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. Then they invented something else. But they never produced anything concrete,” Mutallibov said.

Quliyev says that whatever the risks, he will return to Azerbaijan before the election. “My plans haven’t changed. I am still a registered candidate. Under Azerbaijani laws, no prosecutor, no official can lift my immunity. Even if today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow a court rules that the prosecutor-general’s decision is right, I will not change my plans. I will return to Azerbaijan and take part in the elections,” Quliyev said.

Fuad Alasgarov, a high-ranking official in Azerbaijan’s presidential administration, on 5 September suggested that political exiles campaign while staying out of the country. But Quliyev says he will not even consider that option.

“No government official can settle this issue. This issue must be settled in line with the law. And the law says [authorities] have no right to take such decisions and impose such conditions on me,” Quliyev said.

What To Expect

Mutallibov also says he plans to return to Baku soon despite the risk of being detained. But, unlike Quliyev, he hopes Ilham Aliyev’s calls for national reconciliation will eventually materialize, thus allowing him to escape criminal prosecution.

“When people ask me what I expect, I tell them I expect the head of state to make a decision. I do hope he will make a decision. Generally speaking, things are moving in the right direction,” Mutallibov said.

Aliyev has repeatedly vowed to hold free and fair elections in November. But he has not publicly commented on the issue of Azerbaijan’s political exiles. If Quliyev is allowed to take part in the November election, he will run on the lists of Azadliq (Freedom), the opposition coalition that comprises the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, the reformist wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, and the Musavat party. Mutallibov is registered as a candidate for Yeni Siyaset (New Politics), Azerbaijan’s other main opposition coalition.

See also: "Former Political Convicts Seek Removal Of Convictions Ahead Of Polls"

"Azerbaijan: From Showmanship To Brinkmanship"

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